Arguing that the city of Baltimore violated the Constitution by trying to force them out of business, the owners of 30 liquor stores have appealed new zoning rules. Their lawyer said Tuesday that the challenges will allow the stores to remain open, at least for now.
The liquor stores are fixtures in some of Baltimore’s most troubled neighborhoods. But such stores have been linked to crime and the City Council targeted many of them for closure in a sweeping rewrite of the city’s zoning code in 2016.
The stores were supposed to stop selling liquor June 4 — a move their lawyer says was the first time since Prohibition that the city tried to force liquor stores out of business. Rather than shut down, some of the store owners are fighting back.
The cases were filed last week to the city’s zoning appeals board, but likely will end up in court.
After repeatedly drawing a link between crime and corner liquor stores in some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, Mayor Catherine Pugh held a fundraiser with Korean-American shop owners that netted her campaign more than $20,000.
The owners allege in their appeals that the two years the City Council gave them to close down once the clock started ticking in 2017 weren’t enough and that the city is unconstitutionally depriving them of the use of their properties.
Supporters of the law say concentrations of liquor stores, which academic research has concluded drive up crime rates, in largely African-American neighborhoods are unfair to those communities.
Many of the affected liquor stores are owned by Korean-Americans, and they have said they feel targeted because there are few business owners and residents of their race in the city.
City officials predicted when the law was passed that dozens of stores would be affected.
Not all of them are filing legal challenges. Julian Min, a representative for store owners, said that in the face of the zoning law and a previous round of stepped-up enforcement under the city’s Violence Reduction Initiative, dozens of shopkeepers decided to retire or start businesses in the suburbs.
Those who decided to fight, he said, know there’s no guarantee of success.
Community leaders and advocates say research released Wednesday by the Johns Hopkins University showing that liquor stores attract more violence than bars do bolsters their argument that officials must do more to crack down on problem carryouts.
Peter Prevas, the attorney for the stores mounting challenges, said they have the authority to continue doing business during the appeals. The cases are expected to go before the zoning appeals board in late summer, and then the losing side could appeal to Baltimore Circuit Court.
Prevas said the law regards use of a property as a right that the government cannot take away. He said a government must provide compensation or allow a business to continue operating for a reasonable period. He rejected the city’s position that the stores had long enough.
After Pugh resigned last month, the Korean Society of Baltimore asked her campaign to return some $60,000 in donations from its members so they could give money to Democrat Thiru Vignarajah, a former prosecutor who is running for mayor. Min said the money hasn’t been returned.
Vignarajah said city officials are right to be concerned about the effects of the kinds of businesses that are concentrated in poor neighborhoods — such as check cashing stores, bail bonds offices and liquor stores — but it’s wrong to scapegoat one industry for crime.
“There’s no question that you’d rather have a restaurant rather than a bar, a bar rather than a liquor store,” Vignarajah said. “But there’s a question whether you’d rather have a liquor store than an empty lot.”